Government considering emergency powers with 'appropriate caution,' federal minister says

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair says the federal government has discussed the prospect of invoking emergency legislation and floated the idea of using the military — emphasizing that the government will do everything necessary to end the crisis in the nation's capital

Emergency preparedness minister Bill Blair also said lack of police enforcement 'inexplicable'

A protester packs up materials for building a tent structure on Wellington Street after police intervened, on the 15th day of a protest against COVID-19 measures that has grown into a broader anti-government protest, in Ottawa on Friday. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The federal government has discussed invoking special emergency powers to deal with ongoing protests in Ottawa, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair says, calling a lack of enforcement in the nation's capital "inexplicable."

The government's Incident Response Group and cabinet have had "daily" discussions about potential use of the Emergencies Act, Blair said in an interview on Sunday on Rosemary Barton Live.

A cabinet meeting was added to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's itinerary late Sunday, and CBC News has learned that a meeting with the prime minister and premiers has been called for Monday morning.

Blair described the attitude around use of the law, which has never been implemented before, as "appropriate caution" rather than "reticence."

The law empowers Ottawa to do just about anything it thinks is necessary to cope with a crisis. The legislation, which replaced the War Measures Act, defines a national emergency as a temporary "urgent and critical situation" that "seriously endangers the lives, health or safety of Canadians and is of such proportions or nature as to exceed the capacity or authority of a province to deal with it."

While Blair emphasized it was important to make sure that "the appropriate authorities that are with the provinces are fully utilized," he said the federal government was "prepared to do everything necessary."

He also did not rule out deployment of the military in some way to help end the occupation.

That's a shift in tone from the position taken by Trudeau on Friday, when he said a military deployment is "something to avoid having to do at all costs" while also noting that "all options remain on the table" when discussing blocked border crossings.

WATCH | Emergency preparedness ministers says police must act: 

'We just need the police to do their job,' says minister of emergency preparedness

2 years ago
Duration 10:44
Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair discusses on Rosemary Barton Live the federal government's response to the protests against COVID-19 restrictions that continue to cause major disruptions across the country.

While much of the responsibility for law enforcement lies with the provinces, Blair told CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton, the federal government has made it clear that "in any situation where the circumstances exceed the ability or authority of the provinces, we are prepared to step in and do whatever is necessary."

"Enough is enough, this has to come to an end," he said, noting the role the Canadian Armed Forces have played in assisting during other crises.

"The activities that are targeting right now critical infrastructure, our borders in the country, are intended clearly to harm Canada and Canadians."

'We just need the police to do their jobs'

The protests in Ottawa against COVID-19 public health measures, including vaccine mandates, have dragged on for more than two weeks — with protesters occupying several blocks in the downtown core around Parliament Hill. Local residents, who have faced blaring horns, diesel fumes and harassment, have become increasingly furious with the police response.

Ottawa police have said they have a plan to end the protests but require additional resources from outside the city. Recently, an integrated command centre was set up in the city, bringing together local police with the Ontario Provincial Police and the RCMP.

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, who says discussions are still continuing to end the large protest in the nation's capital that began more than two weeks ago, accuses local police in Ottawa of not doing their jobs. Police have repeatedly said they need more resources. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Michael Kempa, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, said Canadians are starting to wonder which side is accurate.

"This is where the situation is baffling for Canadians watching," he said.

"You've got the chief of Ottawa police and the mayor of Ottawa who repeatedly say that [the city] does not have the resources to carry out this mission on its own and that we're waiting for backup. The prime minister and the federal government, the minister of emergency preparedness, Bill Blair, keeps repeating that [the city] does have the resources that are necessary."

Similar protests elsewhere in the country, aside from an ongoing action near Coutts, Alta., have not become as entrenched as the main truckers convoy that rolled into Ottawa late last month.

A blockade of the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont., was dispersed by police earlier Sunday, with 12 arrests.

Blair said the lack of enforcement in Ottawa was "somewhat inexplicable." Blair, who previously served as public safety minister, was also chief of the Toronto Police Service between 2005 and 2015.

Ontario Provincial Police officers keep watch on protesters opposed to COVID-19 public health measures during a demonstration in Ottawa on Saturday. The truckers convoy protest has lasted just over two weeks. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford declared a state of emergency in the province on Friday, with his cabinet signing orders giving police new leeway and increasing penalties against protesters.

"[Police] now have new authorities and I think very effective tools," Blair said on Sunday. "We just need the police to do their jobs and enforce and uphold the law, and to restore public safety in Ottawa."

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson called the minister's statement "unfair."

"Given the sheer numbers of people who are out, many of them don't have anything to do with the trucking industry they're just showing up to be agitators, we don't have the resources to go in," he said.

"Many of [them] are very angry and very frustrated and are taking it out on our city."

His comments came the same day the city brokered a deal with one of the protest organizers to move trucks out of residential areas in the next 24 hours.

Counter-protests gain steam

Counter-protests are picking up steam in Ottawa, with hundreds marching this weekend. On Sunday, a group of people blocked a major intersection to prevent a number of vehicles from joining the main protest downtown.

Kempa said while he understands the desire to push back, he's worried about the risk of confrontation between the two groups.

"That would be a very dangerous and volatile situation," he said.

"This underlines why the state must get control of the streets of Ottawa. Citizens are, in effect, giving up and the state must demonstrate that the institutions of democracy are able to control the situation."

Politicians at all levels of government have condemned the occupation in Ottawa, calling for protesters to leave. Ford has called the situation a "siege."

Interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen, who in past weeks voiced support for the protest's aims, said on Thursday that "the time has come for you to take down the barricades, stop the disruptive action and come together."

The Conservatives have also tabled a motion calling on Trudeau and his cabinet to drop all federal pandemic restrictions and "transition to a post-COVID society as quickly as possible." The House will vote on the non-binding motion on Monday.

With files from Rosemary Barton and Tyler Buist